Although we Jews celebrate many holidays, we have only three Jewish “festivals.” Shavuot is the shortest and least observed among them. (If you aren’t sure you know the names of the other two festivals, I’ve included them at the end of this message.)
Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and is always observed seven weeks after Passover. In ancient times, Shavuot was a pilgrimage festival when Israelites brought grain offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, it is celebration of Torah, Jewish learning, and the renewal of our commitment to Jewish values.
The URJ offers some excellent online resources pertaining to Shavuot, including a blog posted by Abigail Pogrebin entitled “Sleepless on Shavuot: Let My People Learn.” She wonders why the holiday would be important to liberal Jews and decided to call her friend, Rabbi Irwin Kula. To explain why any holiday is important, he always ask the question, “What do we hire a holiday to do for us?” He suggests that Shavuot was invented because it was responding to a genuine, existential yearning that people had. “So,” he asks, “what’s the yearning to which Shavuot is a response?”
Abigail reflected on his answer and concluded, “It’s the yearning to know what it is we’re really supposed to do with our lives.”
The recent terrorist attack in Manchester was yet another wake up call. We are facing many serious challenges in our world today. What could be more important than addressing them by building stronger relationships, striving to understand one another better, and increasing kindness and empathy in the world?
Earlier this week, a new community initiative known as Connect Miami challenged everyone in Miami to step out of their comfort zones and connect with people who are unlike them. They invited us (as well as all Miami residents) to participate in their “10 Days of Connection Challenge”which continues through May 31.
The idea for this initiative was conceived when leaders from five Miami organizations heard locals expressing a need for stronger relationships, deeper understanding, widespread kindness, and increased empathy. Stephanie Sylvestre (The Children’s Trust), Roberta Shevin (MCCJ), Rebecca Mandelman and Matthew Beatty (The Miami Foundation), Nancy Ancrum (Miami Herald), and Claudia Grillo (United Way of Miami-Dade) came together and decided to take action. The result was a challenge to everyone in Miami-Dade County to build meaningful relationships across lines of difference.
There are many ways to participate in this initiative but one particularly meaningful opportunity would be for members of the Jewish community to connect with members of the Muslim community during Ramadan, their holiest month of the year which begins tomorrow evening (May 26). As we believe that the Torah was revealed on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed during Ramadan. To celebrate, it is their custom to host an iftar, a gathering in the evening at which they often invite non-Muslim friends from the community to share a meal with them.
The only way to eradicate religious extremism is through religious reform. Since we have considerable experience with that, we are most qualified to engage and empower liberal and moderate Muslims through dialogue and through demonstrating to them that reform is possible. They (and we) will need lots of courage to stand up against extremists and ideologies that accept or support extremism.
If you want to participate in the Connect Miami “Challenge” and help strengthen ties between the Jewish and Muslim communities, you can find a number of gatherings throughout Miami here.
Shavuot is the time to celebrate Torah, Jewish learning, and the renewal of our commitment to Jewish values. It is also a time to reflect on what is we’re supposed to do with our lives. Hopefully, that includes building stronger relationships, striving to understand one another better, and increasing kindness and empathy in the world.
By the way, the other two festivals are Pesach and Sukkot.
R’ Moshe Tom